In the last
Progress Notes of the year, editor Sonya Collins shares why story telling is so powerful. If you're making a New Year's resolution to get more involved with Primary Care Progress in 2013, start by sharing your story on
By Sonya Collins
I used to be a language teacher (English & Portuguese) before I returned to school to get a degree in medical journalism, the degree that led me to become the editor of Progress Notes
. Going back to school to leave a career teaching in the humanities and become a science journalist felt like a radical change at the time. But the more experience I gain, the more I see that what compelled me to teach languages is the same thing that draws me to storytelling.
One of the highlights of my teaching career was teaching English to the seamstresses at a midtown Manhattan garment factory. Two days a week, the ladies – about two-thirds of them Hispanic and the other third Chinese – got to knock off early with pay and come to the break room for English class. These ladies had been working together in the same sewing room for years, decades some of them. They’d been sharing the same break room and bathroom, and attending the same company Christmas parties, but it didn’t take me long to realize, they had never spoken to each other before.
Like their sewing machines, the Chinese ladies clustered together in our break room English classes, and the Hispanic ladies, on the other side of the room, did the same. Each only spoke to those who shared her native tongue. But my class activities – games and dialogues they were asked to recite – forced them to interact with natives of the other hemisphere. And end-of-semester class parties had them breaking bread together – breads made in the homes of their classmates with exotic ingredients they’d never heard of before.
In the first weeks of that class, I was met in the break room by a roomful of women silently awaiting my arrival. Later though, I would follow the din of laughter and gabbing to the break room and be forced to quiet them so I could start the class.
After one of the final classes of that first semester, a Colombian woman named Doris stopped me on my way out. “Do you know what I learned in this class?” she asked me. “What’s that?” I asked, expecting to hear a new word or a previously unknown verb tense. “The Chinese ladies are nice,” she said. I laughed, a little puzzled, and said, “Well, of course they are.” Doris shrugged and said, “Well, I didn’t know that because we could never talk to them before. But yesterday, Lee [a Chinese lady who always had candy] brought some candy, and she came over to my table and gave me a piece. She never did that before.”
Doris said she had learned that “Chinese ladies are nice,” but what she had really learned was that the Chinese ladies are just like her. And if a third of the class had been Hungarian or Indian or Dutch, I think Doris would have learned the same thing because she and her co-workers now had a common language through which to make that discovery.
Storytelling has that power, too. To show us that we are more alike than we are different. To show us that someone with cancer, herpes or HIV, or someone who is too poor to access good medical care, is just like me. We can only feel isolated until we start to talk to those around us, share our stories. Then we almost can’t help but learn that we are not alone at all.
As a journalist covering health and medicine, I’m regularly challenged to turn a new policy or data into a compelling narrative. Science journalists are taught to lead not with the numbers that quantify the reach of a disease or its cost to taxpayers but to lead with the face of someone who lives with that condition. Show readers that she’s just like them.
At the annual meeting of the Association of Health Care Journalists, held in Atlanta earlier this year, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter implored journalists to tell stories about highly respected individuals – doctors, lawyers, CEOs – living with mental illness in order to help reduce the stigma.
And here on Progress Notes,
we also aim to reduce stigma and dispel misconceptions through storytelling: the stigma students face on their campuses when they reveal their plans to go into primary care; the misconception that a career in primary care is not a viable option or that practice transformation is not worthwhile; the misconception that you might be the only person taking this on.
The hope is that even one person, perhaps a medical student whose professor told him he was too smart to go into primary care, will read these stories and see, like Doris learned about “the Chinese ladies,” that “These people are just like me.”
Storytelling, like a common language, has the power to do that.
Philipp Batta, in his video series Tangerine Conversations, captures the power of storytelling succinctly in the piece “Teresa 3/200.”
We never see Teresa’s face while she tells us her story. We watch her hands peel a tangerine while she shares that she has undergone multiple surgeries for cleft palate and that she had always been different growing up. In her hospital room, the night before her final surgery, Teresa is disappointed to learn that she has a roommate – until the roommate shares her story, revealing that she has been through the exact same thing. “I had no idea,” Teresa says in the video, “until I met her, what a relief it was that someone else had the exact same experience as well.”
What a relief, indeed. That’s why I taught languages. That’s why I tell stories.
Sonya Collins is an independent journalist covering health policy and medical research. Her work has appeared in publications including
Scientific American, WebMD, and
Yale Medicine. She is the editor of